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Coaches' call: Hostplus Cup Round 1 preview

It has been a long 174 days since the Brisbane Tigers claimed their historic 2023 Hostplus Cup premiership title.

And tomorrow, when the first two games kick off for season 2024, players and clubs from across the competition will embark on their own quest to make history this year.

The Hostplus Cup returns this weekend with a bang, opening with the PNG Hunters playing host to the Wynnum Manly Seagulls and the Western Clydesdales taking on the Central Queensland Capras.

The reigning premiers, the Tigers, will begin their premiership defence on Sunday when they meet long-time rivals in the Sunshine Coast Falcons, while last year's runners-up in the Burleigh Bears also have a home game against the Norths Devils on Saturday.

There are three new coaches this year - Paul Aiton at the Hunters, Terry Campese at the Townsville Blackhawks and Eric Smith at the Northern Pride - along with a smorgasbord of new talent, familiar faces and everyone chasing their own bit of history.

Ahead of Round 1, the coaches of the competition have shared their thoughts on pre-season and what's to come this weekend.

Hostplus Cup Round 1

PNG Hunters v Wynnum Manly Seagulls

PNG Hunters coach Paul Aiton: Comments to come. 

Wynnum Manly Seagulls coach Mat Head: You never know where you’re 100 per cent at going into the season but we believe we’re in a better position than we were last year as a club and a squad. We’re excited about going to PNG for the first time as a squad. The best thing it does is, it gets us together straight away. You don’t see your affiliate players too often so we get to spend 24 hours together before we go out and play in Round 1. We have a bye the following week so we know how important these three days are for us. I haven’t been to PNG before but I know how excited and footy-oriented the country is. We know what we’re up for... It’s what we’ve trained for. We’re better than last year in our fitness and strength and we’re excited to see how that transfers into the game. 


Western Clydesdales v Central Queensland Capras

Western Clydesdales coach Jason Alchin: We’re fit and ready to go. We’re looking forward to the season for our second year in. We’ve got some new players and we’re ready to go. It’s a pretty good squad. I’m very, very happy with it. We have a good mixture of local young men and other blokes coming in from outside. The guys that have come are guys that I was after and they're strong and ready to play against the Capras. I just want them to show who we are this weekend. That’s it, full stop. I want them to show what we’re about and who we are. I want us to be tough and resilient. I want them to do what we’ve been working on. With the Capras, we’re expecting what we usually get. They’re a well-coached side, they’ve been in the finals the last couple of years, they have a good captain who knows how to direct them around. They get back five or six guys from Dolphins NRL. They’re expected to win this game so we’ll be expecting the best that they’ve got and we’re ready for it.

Central Queensland Capras coach Lionel Harbin: We’re excited. It’s Round 1. We didn’t really trial well after a really good pre-season but our last trial against the Hunters was a positive sign. It’s just the simple things that really hurt us in the trials – our completions, our discipline at times. If we can get that right early in the rounds, it sets you up for your performances later on. That will be our focus for the first few rounds before Easter. The Clydesdales are a really big side across the park and so we need to be disciplined from the get go. We’ve lost a fair bit of experience within our forward pack with several guys moving on but it’s an opportunity for some of our younger guys to step up and fill them roles. They got a taste for it last year and we need them to take that step up this year. The Capras, we’re a community-based team and we’ll be going out to represent the people of Central Queensland and we’ll do that every week.


Northern Pride v Tweed Seagulls

Northern Pride coach Eric Smith: There’s definitely been a different feel at training since the back end of last week. I know the last session of last week was the last of pre-season and the energy and enthusiasm was up and they were excited that this was going to be Round 1. They’re ready to play games, they’ve had enough of training in the heat and the wet up here. We’ve had a horrid time of time it with the cyclones and floods. They’re chomping at the bit to get out there. I’m excited too. There’s some nerves mixed in with the excitement for me but I’m excited to see how much we’ve improved in the pre-season and excited to see some of the things we worked so hard on come together in the game. I want us to go out and put a good performance in. There’s always nerves around any game but especially the first one of the year. It’s good to get the two points in your first outing and takes the pressure off a big pre-season. I’m not expecting 80 minutes of good football. Our best football is down the track a little bit yet. I know there’s going to be some clunkiness and things that won’t be what we worked on or want to see but I want to see snippets. We worked hard in the pre-season on certain things in our game and I want to see snippets of that. Hopefully there's enough of that that comes out to put us in a position to win the game. 

Tweed Seagulls coach David Penna: It’s been a long pre-season but the boys have worked really, really hard. In our trials we played well and worked hard on all the things we’ve been preparing for. I’d just be really happy if we went out on Saturday and did all the little things we worked on in the pre-season. We weren’t too far off the pace last year and there were a few little key things that let us down in attention to detail in defence. But we’ve forgotten about last year and have to work really, really hard on the simple things. I'm really looking forward to watching Will Brimson and Luke Burton play. They’ve been with us a little while and they’re older boys but they’ve worked really, really hard and put in a good, full pre-season. The other guys have worked really hard too and I’m looking forward to watching them all play. I'm expecting everything from the Northern Pride. It’s not going to be an easy day. It’s a 5am start and kick off at 3pm and it will be nice and warm up there. We know we’re going to have play well. I’m expecting a tough game and for them to have plenty of footy in them. We just have to worry about ourselves and what we bring and see what happens on the day.


Burleigh Bears v Norths Devils

Burleigh Bears coach Luke Burt: It’s been a really good pre-season and we’re really happy with where we’re at. We feel like we prepared well. We’ll see where we’re at on Saturday. I want to see us continue our defensive efforts. In our two trials our little defensive efforts were really good and those effort areas will be the difference between winning and losing. I’m expecting a super physical match against the Devils. We played them in our first trial and they were really physical, really strong defensively. They have a few blokes that didn’t play in that side, like Eddie Blacker their pack leader, and we’re planning on one of their edges to be a Dolphins edge. We'll have our own affiliates back too, which I'm looking forward to. On the wing, we should have Josiah Karapani. He signed a development contract with the Broncos and has been upgraded to top 30, so I'm really excited to see what he can bring for us after showing some promise in the trials. We'll also welcome Xavier Willison, which shows how lucky we are to have a good, quality front rower coming back to us. He will be partnering big Bailey Butler, who we’re super happy to have and that's one pairing we’re really excited to see in action. Josh Rogers has also slotted right back in with his little partner in crime Guy Hamilton and that's another partnership we're looking forward to watching in 2024.  

Norths Devils coach Dave Elliott: There’s a lot of excitement. Everyone enjoys this time of year, the first round. Everyone’s come off a tough pre-season and no club is different. There is a real excitement in and around the club, both for our BMD and HPC teams. We all get to go to Burleigh with our junior teams as well so we’re really looking forward to it. I really just want to see their effort this weekend, which is exactly what I think I will see and what we’ve seen all pre-season. They’ll turn up for each other and we won’t be beaten by Burleigh through lack of effort. As long as we have that, which is our cornerstone, we can build off that. We’re not expecting to see anything else other than what we’ve seen the last five years from Burleigh. They’re certainly one of the best teams in the comp and have been that for the last five or so years. They’re a team that doesn’t beat themselves. They’re gritty, they’ll execute well and they have Josh Rogers back in the team and I’m sure it will be like he never left. To win, we’ll have to be right on our game because we know they certainly will be.


Ipswich Jets v Townsville Blackhawks

Ipswich Jets coach Ben Cross: We’re not going in with too many injuries, which is good. We took a bit of confidence from the Souths Logan trial… we’ve shown some good signs and a bit of resilience and a bit of a fight back. This year, we’re going to see 10 to 13 players in our side that had an NRL pre-season which is something that this club hasn’t had for a long time and we need that at this level of footy. We had some down at the Roosters, a couple of recruits at the Titans and now we're getting Titans back on a weekly basis, which is helping our roster in quality and depth. From this weekend, we want to see a level of competitiveness. Our mantra is to always compete. Jets are always fast and always compete. We have to compete in every tackle, every play, every set. That gives you a chance to get the result. The Blackhawks have a lot of NRL experience in their side – (James) Tamou, (Jayden) Hodges and even Gehamat Shibasaki is there permanently. If I know Terry Campese like I do, they’ll be an attacking team, attack-focused. They’ll be a well-balanced team. Even from what I’ve saw in the trial teams in muddy conditions, they’re a balanced team. There’s not too many chinks in their armour. I think they’ll be a fairly solid footy side.

Townsville Blackhawks coach Terry Campese: This is an exciting time of year for everyone. Pre-season is finished and the hard slog is over and it’s all about trying to build as much energy as possible going into games. It's not only us, but the whole community are looking forward to watching rugby league. For me, there’s a different feeling as to normal. This is the highest level I’ve coached at. There’s a bit of nerves but I know we’ve done all the work possible and the boys have trialled well so at the end of the day it’s up to us to deliver on the footy field. I know early rounds are difficult in knowing how the opposition are and how they’re going to play. It’s more focused on us and how we want to play. What we spoke about in pre-season is attitude goes a long way. I believe 80 per cent of the preparation is done in pre-season and during the week leading up to a game. Game day is 15 to 20 per cent of the actual week. If they turn up with the right attitude and put everything on the footy field, that’s all we can ask for. It’s an 80 minute performance and we want to see effort… we want to see them try on every occasion. Jets coach Benny Cross is already playing mind games. He’s a good mate of mine, Benny, and we played in a couple of grand finals together and had some success. But he’s definitely started with not naming the correct team – there’s no Titans named at the moment. He’s going to play cheeky buggers through this. I expect his team to be completely different to what’s written down. We'll do what we can do.


Redcliffe Dolphins v Souths Logan Magpies

Redcliffe Dolphins coach Ben Te'o: We’ve had a lot of new faces this season join us so bringing the group together has been our goal over the pre-season. There’s a lot of guys that have come in from different environments. We’ve had a good pre-season together and we got a good trial in against Brisbane Tigers. I’m happy with the new spine we have at the moment – Josh James, Brent Woolf and Latrell Siegwalt. They didn’t know each other previously and they’ve come together well and formed some combinations. Our new captain Max Bailey has been a great addition to the squad so we're looking forward to seeing him. On Saturday, I want to see them execute what we worked on in the pre-season. The way we want to play, I want to see that come to fruition. It’s two impressive teams this weekend, lots of talent and we’re looking forward to it. There’s a lot of experience in that side and a lot of guys who have played a lot of football. They’re going to be as tough as always.

Souths Logan Magpies coach Karmichael Hunt: We’re really looking forward to this weekend. The boys have done nothing but train their tails off so now it’s a reward to play some footy against an opposition we haven’t seen yet this year so we're looking forward to the trip to Redcliffe. There’s been some changes to squad but a large contingent have remained so we’re looking forward to building on what we set last year. We want to improve. We went the smaller squad route this year and the boys have really responded to that and they’re a tight knit group. The boys in the 1-17 on the weekend, they’re looking forward to going out there and performing. The first month of footy, all we’re going to be focusing on is defence. We want to put a stamp on our systems. We want to make sure our defence is ready to roll for the rest of the season. From Redcliffe, it’s always a tough game. Last year we gave them a touch up at Davies Park so no doubt that will be in the back of their minds too. They’ll want to get their season off to a good start.


Brisbane Tigers v Sunshine Coast Falcons

Brisbane Tigers coach Matt Church: We’re really confident. We've had a really good pre-season and added some really good people to our roster so we're feeling good. Treigh Stewart is one who has the ability to get people's attention from the get go. We have Nathan Kegg-King who probably won't play this weekend but we’re looking for him to have a big year. This weekend, it’s getting our game plan right and sticking to our systems. This year it’s important we start well. We have tough periods in the draw later in the year so we need to start well and start fast to set ourselves up for later in the year. The Falcons games are always strong ones. The rivalry exists inside the Storm umbrella and the players that fly up certainly look forward to taking on their counterparts. I’ve been part of the Falcons myself so it’s always one you want to get one up on. We only get them once throughout the year so bragging rights are up for grabs for this year.

Sunshine Coast Falcons coach Brad Henderson: We’re feeling okay ahead of Sunday. I’m picking up on a nervous vibe in the air so as a coach I don’t mind that. It means they’re thinking about what’s in front of them. It’s been hard to narrow it down to a final 18 this week, which is another good sign. I think they’re excited and it’s a great way to start the year, taking on the premiers at their home ground. It’s a tall order. I think there's a little bit of unknown for us. Our trial form has been a bit hit and miss. While I wasn’t disappointed, there were areas we could have been a lot better in and I think the attention to detail will be really good moving forward. I want us to be physical for 80 minutes and the result will take care of itself. Round 1 is never pretty but if the intent and effort is there, we’re a good chance of stealing a win. I know the Tigers have signed really well and retained a large chunk of their squad. I’m expecting them to be consistent. Every game they played last year was for the full 80. We got a tight win over them last year and if we do it again, I don’t expect it to be by a lot. They make you earn it. It’s a hard place to go and win.

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